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Snapshots of Life: Allergen Art

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Pollen grains

Credit: Edna, Gil, and Amit Cukierman, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia

Seasonal allergy sufferers, allow me to take advantage of the powers of confocal microscopy to introduce you to your tormenter: pollen. Although pollen grains look amazing at this magnification, their effects on many of us are not so wonderful. These spiky spheres can trigger an immune reaction that produces the runny nose, itchy eyes, and other symptoms that make people with pollen allergies miserable from early spring through late fall.

In fact, this image was created by a seasonal allergy sufferer who also happens to be a cell biologist. On a Saturday afternoon about a decade ago, Edna Cukierman of Philadelphia’s Fox Chase Cancer Center had just received a new spinning disc confocal microscope and couldn’t wait to try it out. There was just one catch—she also had to watch her two children. Not to be deterred, this multi-tasking scientist/mom turned the process of calibrating her new microscope into a creative way of entertaining her kids.

First, Cukierman needed to find something to image. She settled upon pollen grains the microscope manufacturer sent for the calibration process. Then, using three different wavelengths of laser light, she and her 10-year old son, Gil, created three series of black-and-white images of the pollen grains; each series represented progressive slices taken at varying focal planes. Using computer software, Cukierman showed Gil how to stack each series of images to create a 3D black-and-white photo. Her 7-year old son, Amit, added the final flourish by choosing one color for each 3D image that, when overlaid, would make it pop.

Over the years, the Cukierman family has enjoyed seeing their pollen image win accolades at various venues showcasing the intersection of science and art, including Nikon’s Small World, Olympus BioScapes, and, most recently, in NIH’s Life:Magnified exhibit. Not bad for a Saturday art project!


Pollen Allergy (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Edna Cukierman, Fox Chase Cancer Center

“Life: Magnified” Online (NIH)

NIH support: National Cancer Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences


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